Once in a while, a publication asks who the greatest American of our lifetime is. And while Cracked would never presume to answer that question, we absolutely can. Is it Zombie Teddy Roosevelt? The puppeteer who made Ronald Reagan come alive? Former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson?
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You have to admit he's a frontrunner.
Strong contenders, all, but no. Sit down, neighbor, and hear of a man who did not conquer the world, but did it one better; he reminded us that the world needs unity rather than conquest. He walked among us as a man, although he was a hand-to-God saint. They say the difference between a saint and a psychopath is empathy, and Mr. Fred Rogers had an ocean of it, which makes him either the sanest man in history or the craziest hero we ever had.
If you're from some country that doesn't have puppets and never heard of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, it's OK! He loves you anyway. In fact, he'd want to introduce you to all of us so we could learn from you. So go tell us something wonderful about your people in the comments.
As for the rest of us, here are amazing videos of Mr. Rogers that prove Tom Junod's Esquire profile of him accounts for his greatness in the grime of the real world. Go ahead, read it. It is the only permissible instance of the phrase "[Mr. Rogers'] bobbing nudity."
All set? At my signal, take off those ironic smirks and don your extra-strength smiles, because your faith in human beings is about to get an upgrade.
#5. He Gave All of Himself to Strangers
Imagine for a second how many letters Mr. Rogers got in a day. He was neighbor to 13.6 million kids, and by the time they were too old to watch his show, they'd been replaced by 13.76 million kids. Every day, America 5 & Under waited for Mr. Rogers to come in and don one of his trademark sweaters.
Therefore, you may find it unbelievable that Mr. Rogers answered all of his fan mail, which was pretty much ALL of the fan mail.
(Those sweaters, by the way, were all made for him by his mom, just so you know how wonderful the Rogers family is.)
The amount of free time that man had in the day could be measured in hummingbird heartbeats. But he sincerely believed that each of us is special and interesting. He knew that the real world is not like the Neighborhood, and he wanted people to be able to carry its lessons with them.
In lieu of video of his penmanship, please accept a clip of him discussing these same very serious issues with Arsenio Hall, and -- bonus! -- wearing a sweet ultra-'90s jacket:
Why It Made Him Great
Answering that much mail is a Sisyphean task, but if Mr. Rogers were pushing a boulder up a hill, I guarantee it would end with the boulder tearfully admitting that it had been abandoned by its father. Because when Mr. Rogers undertakes an impossible task, that task had better start writing its last will and testament.
The only person who gets more mail from kids than Mr. Rogers is Santa Claus, and Mr. Rogers didn't have to bribe them with toys to receive it. He just generally wanted to know if you were doing well. And Santa doesn't answer his fan mail, so we're giving this one to Fred Rogers.
See, the thing of it all ... the real thing that makes him amazing is not that he was so impossibly good; there are people like that out there in the world. It's that he was so impossibly real. He was aware of his image, but it wasn't something he maintained. Off-camera, he revealed sides of himself that didn't appear on the show, but all of them were in accord with the persona we saw on PBS. As he once said, "Kids can spot a phony a mile away."
Virtue Unlocked: Integrity
#4. Nature Itself Recognized His Greatness
Naturally, everyone loved him, because he loved them, unconditionally. Really, guys -- EVERYONE. Koko the gorilla learned sign language, and the most important thing she needed to tell us was that she's a big fan of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. That makes sense, because you don't leap interspecies language barriers without recognizing that humans have some pretty good stuff going on. So when she met him and was asked about love, well ... just watch:
"Love YOU," she signs. "Love you visit." Then she pulls him in for a hug. What you don't see is that after that, she tries to take off his shoes, because gorillas ... unlike celebrities, they're just like us!
Wait, sorry, that's the kind of joke I would normally make. But we're all the same. I know this because Mr. Rogers taught me to see it in others.
Why It Made Him Great
Well, the animal kingdom itself bent down to praise him. That's only happened to three other people: Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, and Bambi. Truly, this was a great man. He tamed a wild animal with the power of love.
Virtue Unlocked: Harmony
#3. He Found Delight in Little Things
Mr. Rogers was 143 pounds his entire adult life, and back in a time when we wore magical devices on our belts called pagers, that number was how drug dealers told each other "I love you." You know who invented that letter-counting code? Mr. Rogers, in the episode "Transformations":
According to Esquire, every morning, Mr. Rogers stepped on the scale, and every day, the first message he received was "I love you!" This tickled Mr. Rogers to no end, and sent him out into the world on the right foot to tell everyone he loved them, too.
Why It Made Him Great
Now this seems like nothing more than an adorable quirk. But what it implies is that here's a man who made a decision to be healthy and happy.
Nobody can maintain the same exact weight for 30 years, let alone 143 pounds. That's approximately how much the average left thigh weighs in America. In cities with a great barbecue scene, you'll find pigeons that weigh more than that. And Mr. Rogers loved them, too. But he didn't eat animals, probably because they spoke to him.
But it wasn't just a little cute thing. Apparently this was a thing Mr. Rogers was known to do, like when he started signing letters to a reporter "IPOY," or "I'm proud of you."
That annoying text shorthand that makes previously respectable people sound like robots that have been hit by cars is actually a fine tradition started by a man you respect. In the Neighborhood, everything means something, and the messages are here to help us improve.
And now you see that the problem was you -- or if not you, then the world's English majors, our nation's richest source of SMS snobs. Now that you have seen the face of Mr. Rogers in the heart of everyone you speak with, you realize it's the message, not the medium, that matters, and the message is love.
I know you're waiting for some snark to season that schmaltz, but: nope! Fred taught me it's OK to say stuff like that.
Virtue Unlocked: Bliss